Thursday 30 May 2013

The Daventry Years (2)

During my time at Daventry Tertiary College the industrial relations “atmosphere” was never particularly happy. Indeed for much of the time it was fairly toxic and the reason for this isn’t hard to find. The college was always going to struggle financially because of external constraints (too few potential students in the catchment area) but also because of top-heavy management structure that had been agreed when the college was established.

Even if the Principal and the four Assistant Principals had been stunningly talented and universally admired and respected by the staff and the local community it would have been a major struggle to maintain the viability of the college. The college didn’t need five such expensive members of staff soaking up resources that could far better have been allocated to improving the quality of teaching and learning. Inspirational leadership – even if had been available – was never going to be a substitute for qualified and experienced teaching staff!
In reality the Senior Leadership Team were not “stunningly talented”. Three of the five seemed to have no relevant experience or qualifications in the areas in which they were supposed to provide leadership and so they sought to hide their ignorance under a veneer of macho management posturing.
Local politicians and the Governing Body (later the Corporation) were warned again and again of the inevitable consequences of the ill-conceived staffing structure that had been imposed on the college as part of some bizarre educational experiment in the west of Northamptonshire. Unfortunately they had staked so much of their personal credibility on making the project work that they were totally unreceptive to any views that differed from their own.

Saturday 25 May 2013

Society accounts that don't feel right!

I belong to a number of specialist societies covering the full range of my hobbies. Although the topics that the groups cover vary widely it always amuses me how the same problems are discussed and the same frantic appeals are made again and again by hard-pressed society officers.

Getting people to do the various tasks needed to keep a group running seems to be getting harder and harder. It doesn’t seem to matter if it is a village fete, a primary school governing body or an industrial heritage group - finding volunteers who are prepared to give up their, increasingly limited, leisure time is next to impossible.
But there is another, equally worrying, trend that seems to be spreading though the subscription charging groups. Far too often I see annual accounts presented that don’t make any sort of logical sense. I have a set of accounts in front of me as I write this blog entry that falls into this category. A 400 member group claims to be paying out nearly £3,500 per annum on postage. I know what I receive three times each year and there is no possible way that this costs £3.00 each time. The bulletin weighs less than 100g and a “large letter” doesn’t attract postal charges anything like £3.00. Printing and stationery costs appear elsewhere in the accounts so that isn’t the explanation. But what is?

Accountancy fees came to over £500 pa (gulp!) or £1.25 per member but as 90%+ of the total income reported is the annual subscription how can this sort of figure be justified? Surely somebody in the group could do this work for a purely nominal sum?

Monday 20 May 2013

Exploiting inertia or ignorance

The business philosophy that exploiting the inertia or ignorance of an existing client is an acceptable, even desirable, practice seems to be well entrenched in the UK.

When the renewal quote for our car insurance came through last week we were surprised that the premium had increased by over 30%. By visiting price comparison website we were able to get a far better deal – indeed the price our existing insurers quoted was almost twice what we ended up paying for exactly the same cover.

It was the same story when we reached the end of the initial 12 month period during which we received an enhanced interest rate on our savings. The rate would then have plummeted but the bank/building society did the absolute minimum that they could get away with to let us know about the change. I am not sure that I would want to support any firm, now or in the future, that treats customers in such an off-hand manner!

It also seems to me that ignoring customer concerns or complaints has become the default position for far too many organisations. Again and again in the finance sections of the weekend papers I read horror stories of major companies claiming to have “no record whatsoever” of receiving any complaints from a dis-satisfied customer. It is my theory that the junior staff who open the post just file incoming complaints in the shredder so as to avoid the need to do anything about resolving the problem. When it comes to raising issues involving company malpractice or even illegality “say nothing – do nothing” seems to be the standard practice.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Participation and non-participation

If I say that I’m going to do something as part of a group effort then come hell or high water I will do it. It would take some massive crisis for me to let other people down and if I did realise that a change of plans was needed I would sort out the alternative provision myself.

Sadly and annoyingly there are too many people around who are quite prepared to offer their help during the initial planning phase but who then drop out without a thought if they get a better offer or if following through on their initial offer proves to be mildly inconvenient to them. They then end up feeling aggrieved or snubbed when twelve months later they are not even asked to get involved!

Another variation of this is when somebody offers their help but their offer is so surrounded by caveats and conditions that in reality they are not in a position to help at all. As an example If somebody volunteers to be a school governor then it is pretty much a given that they need to be able to attend meetings and/or to visit the school. I well remember a new governor over in Northamptonshire whom I never saw in the 12 months between her appointment by the Local Authority and my departure over to Shropshire. No exaggeration – I literally never saw her. At least twice she arranged to come in for her initial briefing only to break the appointment at very short notice.

The third and final sub-type is what I call the “non-resigner”. Sometimes a person stops participating in a group but remains, nominally, a member. This can be difficult to deal with especially in circumstances where the total membership of the group in laid down by law.

Tuesday 7 May 2013

Post-election blues

I used to get say that politicians were only interested in talking to me when they wanted my vote. As regular as clockwork when election time came round I could confidently predict that I would receive promotional material from each of the main parties standing in my constituency.

Sadly over the last few years there has been a steady move towards the elimination of even this small amount of voter/representative interaction.  For the last three elections – the Police Commissioner, the County Council and the Parish Council – nothing whatsoever came through our front door. I find this quite annoying in so many different ways. Why should I bother to vote for a candidate that cannot be bothered to tell me what he or she believes in? Little wonder that the turn-out at some of these elections is so low.

Looking on the bright side. I have greatly cheered by the recent performance of UKIP. What was particularly enjoyable was seeing the outrage of the political establishment at the prospect of their cosy little cartel being disrupted by “people power”. The Conservatives in south Shropshire seem so entrenched and now the other parties seem to given up trying to unseat them – neither Labour or the Lib Dems even stood for election – I would welcome the opportunity to vote for UKIP.

I don’t want a party run by millionaire Old Etonians to speak for me. Still less do I want to support a person who is so delusional that he believes that any meaningful renegotiation with foreign governments over the EU will be possible.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Education as a business - the lessons from history.

There is all the difference in the world between a school governor with a general interest in education and a governor with the experience and specialist knowledge of education sufficient for them to be able to act as a critical friend to the school - especially with regard to the quality of teaching and learning. Without knowing what questions to ask and the range of plausible answers I don’t see how any non-expert could carry out that role.  Surely the quality of the education on offer is crucial to virtually all the stakeholders in a school and anything that diminishes the influence of the “education experts” should be viewed with suspicion?  

When a school becomes an academy the temptation is always going to be to fill the Governing Body with accountants, solicitors and other professional “worthies” hoping that they will offer free support to the school in areas where the senior leadership team have gaps in their knowledge or experience. Is this going to be at the expense of other stakeholders?
A complicating factor is that a volunteer from an educational background is unlikely to find the hard-nosed accountants and HR managers congenial company when it comes to running a school. From my own experience in Further Education and in schools I would be prepared to bet that most educational governors will want nothing whatsoever to do with the business side of running the school. Time will tell if my worries are justified but anybody who was involved in Further Education in the last decade of the 20th century knows what happened to standards when colleges became businesses.